Page 79 of Wheels


Soon after, the talk returned to the Orion and the dealer preview extravaganza. "I can't help wondering," Erica said, "if all this week is really necessary."


"It is," Adam said, "and I'll tell you why. Dealers and salesmen at a preview see any car at its best - like a jewel in a Tiffany setting. So from that, plus all the carnival, they go back charged up about the product that in a few days will be dropped off in front of their dealerships."

"Dropped off dusty," Brett said. "Or maybe grimy from the journey, with hub caps off, bumpers greasy, stickers and sealing tape all over. A mess."

Adam nodded. "Right. But the dealer and salesmen have already seen the car as it should be. They know how great it is when prepared for a showroom. Their enthusiasm doesn't leave them, and they do a better selling job."

"Not forgetting, advertising helps," Barbara said. She sighed. "I know that critics think a lot of the hoopla's corny. But we know it works."

Erica said softly, "Then mostly because all three of you care so much, I hope it works for the Orion."

Under the table, Adam squeezed her hand. He told the others, "Now we can't miss."

A week later, when the Orion was on view in dealer showrooms throughout North America, it seemed that he was right.

"Rarely," reported Automotive News, the industry's weekly holy writ, "has a new car evoked such a remarkable response so soon. Already, a huge backlog of orders has its manufacturers elated, their production men harried, competitors alarmed."

A press consensus reflected the same view. The San Francisco Chronicle declared, "The Orion has most of the safety and clean air hardware we've been promised for years, and looks beautiful too." The Chicago Sun-Times conceded, "Yessir! This one's zazzy!" The New York Times pontificated, "Conceivably, the Orion may mark the end of an era which, while admittedly encouraging engineering advances, of ten subordinated them to styling needs. Now, both out-of-view engineering and external form appear to be proceeding hand-in-hand."

Newsweek and Time both featured Hub Hewitson and the Orion on their covers. "The last time that happened," a gleeful p.r. man told anybody who would listen, "was with Lee Lacocca and the Mustang."

Not surprisingly, the company's top echelon was in a happy mood when, soon after the Orion's public introduction, it met to consider Farstar.

***

It was a final product policy meeting - last of a series of three. The Farstar project had survived the preceding two. Here, it would either go forward as a firm commitment - a new car to be introduced in two years' time - or would be discarded forever, as many projects were.

The previous meetings had involved intensive study, presentations, argument, and tough interrogation, but were relatively informal. The final meeting would still feature the same kind of study and dissection but, as to formality, would be like a black-tie dinner party compared with casual lunch.

The product policy board, which today would total fifteen people, began assembling shortly after 9 A.M. The meeting would commence at 10 A.M. promptly, but it was traditional for informal discussions, between groups of two and three, to occupy most of the hour beforehand.

The meeting place was on the fifteenth floor of the company staff building - a smallish, luxuriously appointed auditorium, with a horseshoe-shaped table of polished walnut. Around the closed end of the horseshoe were five black leather, high-backed chairs for the chairman of the board, president, and three executive vice-presidents of whom Hub Hewitson was senior. In the remaining lower-backed chairs the remaining participants would sit, in no particular order.

At the horseshoe's open end was a raised lectern for use by whoever was making a presentation. Today it would be occupied mainly by Adam Trenton.

Behind the lectern was a screen for slide and film projection.

A smaller table beside the horseshoe was for the meeting's two secretaries. In the wings and a projection booth were staff backup men, with thick black notebooks containing - as a wag once put it - every answer known to man.

And as always, despite the prevailing Orion happiness and a surface ease which might deceive an outsider, the underlying tone of the product policy meeting would be deadly serious. For here was where an auto corporation put millions of dollars on the line, along with its reputation and its life. Some of the world's greatest gambles were launched here, and they were gambles because, despite research and backup, an "aye" or "nay" decision in the end must be based on instinct or a hunch.

Coffee service in the auditorium began with first arrivals. That was traditional, as was a waiting pitcher of chilled orange juice - for the chairman of the board who disliked hot drinks in daytime.

The room was filling when Hub Hewitson breezed in near 9:30. He first got coffee for himself, then beckoned Adam and Elroy Braithwaite, who were chatting.

Looking pleased with himself, Hewitson opened a folder he had carried in and spread out several drawings on the horseshoe table. "Just got these. Timely, eh?"

The Design-Styling vice-president strolled to join them and the four pored over the drawings. No one needed to ask what they were. Each sheet bore the insignia of another of the Big Three manufacturers and included illustrations and specifications of a new car. Equally obvious was that this was the competitive car which Farstar would face two years from now, if today's proposals were approved.

The Silver Fox whistled softly.

"It's extraordinary," the Design-Styling vice-president mused, "how, in some ways, their thinking has paralleled ours."

Hub Hewitson shrugged. "They keep an ear to the ground just as we do, read the same newspapers, study trends; they know the way the world's moving. Got some bright boys on their payroll, too." The executive vice-president shot a glance at Adam. "What do you say?"

"I say we have a far better car. We'll come out ahead."

"You're pretty cocky."

"If that's the way it seems," Adam said, "I guess I am."

Hub Hewitson's face relaxed into a grin. "I'm cocky, too. We've another good one; let's sell it to the others."

He began folding the drawings. Later, Adam knew, they would analyze the competitive car in detail, and perhaps make changes in their own as a result.

"I've often wondered," Adam said, "what we have to pay to get this stuff."

Hub Hewitson grinned again. "Not as much as you'd think. Ever hear of a well-paid spy?"

"I suppose not." Adam reflected: Spying was something which all big auto companies practiced, though denying that they did. His own company's espionage center - under an innocuous name - occupied cramped, cluttered quarters in the Design-Styling Center and was a clearinghouse for intelligence from many sources.

For example, research engineers of competitive companies were a mother lode of information. Like all scientific researchers, engineers loved to publish, and papers at technical society meetings often contained a phrase or sentence, by itself insignificant, but, taken in conjunction with other fragments from elsewhere, gave clues to a competitor's thinking and direction. Among those engaged in auto espionage it was accepted that engineers are innocents."

Less innocent was a flow of intelligence from the Detroit Athletic Club, where senior and middlerank executives from all companies drank together.

A result of their drinking was that some, relaxed and off-guard, tried to impress others with their inside knowledge. Across the years, finely tuned ears in the D.A.C. had gathered many tidbits and occasionally news of great importance.

Then there were leakages through tool-and-die companies. Sometimes the same tooling companies served two, or even three, major auto makers; thus, a seemingly casual dropper-in to a die-making shop might see work in progress for an auto firm other than his own. An experienced designer looking at the female portion of a die could sometimes tell what the entire rear or front end of a competitor's car looked like - then go away and sketch it.

Other tactics were sometimes used by outside agencies whose modi operandi were not scrutinized too closely. They included enlistment of competitors' disaffected employees to purloin papers, and sifting of garbage was not unknown. Once in a while an employee, unconcerned about conflicting loyalties, might be "planted" in another company. But these were grubby methods which top executives preferred not to hear about in detail.

Adam's thoughts switched back to Farstar and the product policy board.

The auditorium clock showed 9:50 and the company chairman had just arrived, accompanied by the president. The latter, a dynamic leader in the past but now considered "old school' by Adam and others, would be retiring soon, with Hub Hewitson predicted to succeed him.

A voice beside Adam asked, "What variances will Farstar have for Canada?"

The questioner was head of the company's Canadian subsidiary, invited here today by courtesy.

"We'll be going into that," Adam said, but he described the variances anyway. One of the Farstar lines would be given a differing name - Independent - exclusive to Canada, and the exterior hood emblem would be changed to include a maple leaf. Otherwise the can would be identical with Farstar models in the U.S.

The other nodded. "As long as we have some difference we can point to, that's the main thing."

Adam understood. Although Canadians drove U.S. cars, produced by U.S. controlled subsidiaries employing U.S. union labor, national vanity in Canada fostered the delusion of an independent auto industry. The Big Three had humored these pretensions for years by naming the heads of their Canadian branches presidents, although in fact such presidents were answerable to vice-presidents in Detroit. The companies, too, had introduced a few "distinctively Canadian" models. Nowadays, however, Canada was being regarded more and more by all auto makers as just another sales district, and the special models - never more than a facade - were being quietly dropped. The "Canadianized" Farstar Independent would probably be the last.

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